Patching Up Depression

Good for the head, bad for the gut, MAOIs can be administered with a skin patch.

By Jamie Talan, published March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The next person you see sporting a taupe-colored arm patch may be trying to kick depression, not smoking. Doctors are now testing the patch as a way of delivering one of the most effective classes of antidepressants ever developed.

Use of MAO inhibitors waned after the 1960s, when scientists found that interfering with MAO (monoamine oxidase) is good for the head but bad for the gut. Blocking MAO seems to boost levels of mood-lifting neurochemicals. But MAO is crucial in the stomach, where it breaks down compounds in wine and cheese that raise blood pressure. Skin patches eliminate this problem by allowing MAO inhibitors to seep into the blood, bypassing the gut.

Patches work faster, too--like "an intravenous antidepressant without the needle," says Alexander Bodkin, M.D., director of clinical psychopharmacology research at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. He found that subjects wearing the patch reported higher spirits after one week; pills usually take three weeks to work. He plans to test patches for treating other brain disorders, such as schizophrenia.